Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you could easily make the case that the Detroit Lions have been one hot mess for at least 20 years. They have had serious management and coaching issues.

Well, when it comes to the Lions’ defense, you could say that they have a little bit of an identity crisis as well.

Take a look at their head coach, Jim Schwartz. He got his start with Bill Belichick while in Cleveland, yet his defense resembles nothing of the 3-4/4-3 hybrid system of Belichick and Nick Saban. Schwartz was also Jeff Fisher’s defensive coordinator in Tennessee, but his defense looks nothing like the 46 Defense that Buddy Ryan taught Fisher.

Schwartz’s defensive coordinator is Gunther Cunningham, who was recently Herm Edwards’ defensive coordinator in Kansas City. Yet, Cunningham recently went on the record saying he hated the Tampa 2 that Edwards (via Tony Dungy) lived and died by.

So, what the heck is going on with the Lions’ defense? That’s a great question. Let’s take a look.

They are a base 4-3 defense, but play the 4-2-5 nickel package in more than 50% of their snaps. Within those packages, they have three major tendencies:

1) Play the “Wide 9″ defensive end alignment.

2) Play primarily man-to-man coverage with a single high safety look. They blitz out of this a lot.

3) Play a cover 3 shell with the strong safety in the box against a strong running offense (like the Vikings).

What in the heck is the “Wide 9″? Basically, it’s where the defensive ends align along the line of scrimmage. Each offensive lineman has a “gap” that could be occupied by a defender. See the picture below.



The 0 gap is directly over the center, the 2 gaps are directly over the guards, the 4 gaps are directly over the tackles, and the 6 gaps are directly over the tight ends. The odd number gaps are the shoulders between offensive linemen. The 9 gap is the outside shoulder of the tight end.

In the “Wide 9″ alignment, the defensive ends align outside of the tight ends. See below.



If the offense only deploys a single tight end set, the defensive ends still align where the tight ends would normally be.



Or, in a no tight end set, the defensive ends still align where the 9 gap would be.



The “Wide 9″ alignment is an aggressive scheme. It is mainly used to force the offensive tackles into poor angles while trying to block faster and more athletic defensive ends. It is highly effective as a pass rushing alignment as well as defending stretch runs and the zone read options. We see it a lot in college, due to the zone read, but less so in the pros.

It’s not without weakness, however, as it makes a wide alignment that is susceptible to inside runs. But, defensive coordinators think the benefits outweigh the negatives.

They usually counter the wide weaknesses by coupling the 9 gap alignment with blitzes. Gunther Cunningham said he loves the alignment because it allows him to blitz “anyone from anywhere.”

In the 4-2-5 look, Cunningham usually plays man-to-man coverage with a single high safety (cover 1). See below.




While remaining in cover 1, he likes to blitz both linebackers to fill the wide spaces left open by the 9 gap defensive ends. You’ll the curved approach the linebackers take to fill the holes. See below.



Another blitz combo he uses to plug gaps is the linebacker and strong safety blitz.



Finally, another standard blitz he employs is the single strong safety blitz.



When facing a strong running team, such as the Vikings, Cunningham reverts to the cover 3 scheme. This allows him to keep the strong safety in the box for run support, but three deep defenders are still in good position to defend the deep pass.



It will be interesting to see if Cunningham rolls out the cover 3 against the Packers. If he does, that means that Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin have struck a little fear and respect into the Lions’ defense. If we don’t see any cover 3 against the Packers, it means that the Lions aren’t taking the Packers’ running game very seriously.

Stay tuned for the chess match that will ensue on Sunday.


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  • Stephen

    Fascinating. This will make watching the Lions defence this weekend all the more interesting. Keep these up, my brain likes it!

    • Jay

      Thanks, Stephen!